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The Filthy Rich: Our New Gods?

June 13, 2008
N. Lukanovich

Way back in l974, on a hot June day, my world was shaken and my perspectives forever changed. I happily trundled off to the canoe club, brimming with adolescent eagerness to see my summer friends, my brand new braces glinting in the sun like a mouth full of disco balls.

I spotted my pretty young friend Sylvie and I smiled and she smiled, and that's when I noticed she was missing her teeth. Every single tooth that normally lived in the upper palette had vanished.

Why oh why, I wondered, did she have all these teeth removed? She said it was cheaper than having the rotten ones pulled out and replaced. It was all her mother could afford.

She laughed and made fun of my braces, and I laughed and burned with shame down to the tips of my eleven year old toes. Mesmerized by her eldery toothless grin, I knew there was something terribly wrong in the world. Something cruel and without conscience.

I mulled it over from my split level home in an upper-middle class neighborhood, and the answer seemed to be unfettered greed. No one cared about the poor. At least not enough.

Sylvie - not her real name - seemed less bothered than I about her gummy smile, but her neighborhood was filled with missing teeth; where they went I do not know. It seemed forever before she got her dentures, and so I developed a hefty case of upper-middle class guilt that summer, and it became chronic. So chronic that I embraced poverty as a lifestyle when I reached adulthood, sure that this would help.

But wealth is not simply about money; it's about education, expectations, opportunity, and a sense of entitlement.

Wealth, however, is a relative thing, and I didn't realize that our family was as removed from the tiny minority who enjoy vast wealth, than we were from the poorest of the poor. There was nothing luxurious about my upbringing, we simply had, well, what everyone should have.

The filthy rich live amongst themselves, in their own exclusive world. And this level of wealth has come to be more than acceptable, it's admired, like great big muscles or inventing the wheel. If someone's that rich, then they must be special.

The bulk of voters have been convinced that you earn what you deserve, the poor brought it on themselves, and there is nothing immoral about some having wealth so vast they could buy a small country. And so the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

CEO's who have failed, get 200 million dollar severance packages, while minimum wage increases at rates far lower than the cost of living. Most who make a decent income, even if they have seen sixty year olds working at MacDonald's, choose to believe that only teens living at home earn minimum wage.

Minimum wage is slave labor, it doesn't allow anyone to move forward, other than the share holders and CEO's of large corporations.

Many of the filthy rich go to church and pray, full of right wing morality that has forgotten that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Matthew 19:24.

Since I haven't seen the inside of a church in decades, I can only imagine that ministers have changed their tune. Like the tele-evangelist I saw shouting at his eager audience "God wants you to be RICH!". While my recollection of Sunday school is rather vague, I'm fairly sure we heard something different, something about compassion for the poor.

Those with great wealth have become our new gods, and celebrities are the glossy gods that buy 68 million dollar homes, when they already own seven, and we drink it all in and dream we could do the same. Some of these glossy gods give away money to charity, but not so much that they can't afford those desperately needed 68 million dollar estates.

According to Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, it costs a mere 25 dollars to buy and get an irrigation pump installed in Bangladesh. 1.2 billion people survive on a dollar a day or less, and 800 million subsist on 1 acre or half acre farms. Sixty million dollars would provide pumps for 2,400,000 farmers, with 8 million left over as fun money.

I have traveled the world and seen little girls standing by the side of the main road going into Mumbai, holding babies and begging for money in stalled traffic. I have seen families living on the edge of mountain highways, in rain soaked tents, to earn less than a dollar a day, and I have seen a man doing a headstand on the sidewalk with his head IN the sidewalk begging for money - which stunned me more than the leper left with only a torso just a few feet away.

Many of the uber-wealthy travel to these same places, so they must have seen the same things - and everyone has seen the starvation of multitudes on television. Poverty is not a pretty sight.

So I have to wonder: how can anyone buy a Birken bag for 250 thousand dollars and still get a good night's sleep? Is spending a million on a wedding about individual freedom, or just a filthy low-down absence of conscience?



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Text and Images: Property of Natasha J. Lukanovich or contributors - Writers and Artists as Named